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In 1924, Morocco was a protectorate, under the administration of France to the south and Spain to the north. The Spanish portion was, simply speaking, a disaster, with years of oppression that erupted into vicious open rebellion. The French protectorate, on the other hand, was by and large a successful nurturing of a technologically backward country into the Twentieth century.
That result was due to one unlikely man.
Hubert Lyautey was a minor aristocrat who learned the task of colonial rule in Indochina and Algeria, and was appointed resident general of Morocco in 1912. He plays a central role in Garment of Shadows, even more so than Edmund Allenby in O Jerusalem, and his home in the medina is the center of much of the story’s action.
Dar Mnehbi is a beautiful little palace surrounded by the tangled lanes of old Fez, used now for special events such as the city’s annual festival of sacred music. I came across Dar Mnehbi the first day I spent in Fez, although I did not realize what I had seen for many months:
The library opened off the grand central courtyard of the main dar, where an ornate expanse of tile echoed with the music of falling water and cushioned banquettes lay against the walls. The halka grid was directly overhead, indicating that this part of Dar Mnehbi was but a single storey high. I could see why it had been necessary to take over the adjoining dar—most of the doors opening onto this ornate courtyard stood open, revealing a series of formal salons. It took Youssef some time to lead me to the correct doorway, my steps being slowed by my attempts to take it all in. I goggled, frankly, at the intricate texture of the zellij tiles and carved plaster, zellij and water, zellij and painted wood, zellij and coloured glass. It was a space both intimate and intimidating: lavish to the point of majestic, yet clearly designed as a place to welcome guests.
The patient servant, having stopped me first from walking into the fountain and then from tumbling over a charcoal brazier, finally led me to one of the intricately painted doors off to one side.
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